Published in The New York Times
The composer Scott Frankel was walking down Commercial Street in Provincetown, Mass., when an angry young man approached him. The stranger was a fan of “Grey Gardens” — the 1975 documentary about two eccentric relatives of Jackie Kennedy living in a filthy, raccoon-infested East Hampton mansion — and had heard Mr. Frankel was planning to compose a stage musical version.
“He went on this screaming diatribe about ‘How could I? How could I desecrate, dilute, defile and destroy their lives?,’ ” Mr. Frankel recalled. “I dutifully invited him to a performance, and he’s now a convert.”
Mr. Frankel and the other creators of the musical “Grey Gardens,” which reopens on Broadway Nov. 2 after a successful Off Broadway run, were aware that fans of the mother, Edith Bouvier Beale, called Big Edie, and of her daughter, who had the same name and is called Little Edie, were extremely sensitive. “People who are rabid fans,” he said, “are fiercely protective of Little Edie in particular, and her legacy.”
The movie “Grey Gardens” attained cult status, in part, by attracting social outsiders who saw its quirky heroines as kindred spirits. The film’s following spread through costume parties as Little Edie’s outlandish style of dress turned her into a fashion icon. Within gay circles, bootleg VHS copies of the film were passed from person to person. These days, fans pass around DVD’s and engage in occasionally heated debates on the “Grey Gardens” Yahoo discussion group, which has received more than 8,000 posts this year. They create videos on YouTube, one of which has images of Little Edie dancing synched up to Madonna’s “Hung Up.”
Clearly, the musical has already won over some fans. “I was ready to massacre it, but I ended up enjoying it,” said the openly gay singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, who wrote and performed a song called “Grey Gardens” for his 2001 album, “Poses.”
During the show’s original run, at Playwrights Horizons, a group of women flew in from Seattle dressed as Little Edie, with pinned brooches or scarves over their heads. A mother and daughter from Raleigh, N.C., both named Carolyn Houy, saw it nine times off Broadway and booked nine Broadway performances. The younger Carolyn raved about everyone involved. “Her voice shimmers like moonlight on the waves of East Hampton,” she said of Christine Ebersole, who plays Big Edie in the first act, set in 1941, and Little Edie in the second act, set in 1973. Of Mr. Frankel, she said, “He could have walked with Puccini, Mozart and Verdi.”
Ms. Ebersole said that at Playwrights Horizons she was constantly receiving backstage admirers, one of whom had seen the show 13 times. Of such visitors, she said, “a lot of times people will be uncontrollably crying.” She added, “My response is to sort of hold them in my arms.”
David Hanbury, an actor who says he has seen the film at least 20 times, embraced the musical. “I’m used to watching ‘Grey Gardens’ with one or two people,” he said. “To sit in an audience and see that it’s not just this cult thing, that everyone gets it, is inon the joke, is thrilling.” Some fans did not like the creators toying with the scenes they knew well. “The moments that bother me are the ones where the dialogue has been extended for dramatic effect,” said Kevin Hertzog, a prop stylist and a friend of Mr. Frankel, who said he cannot go two months without seeing the film.
Eva Weiss, a fan who signs her posts to the Yahoo group “Little Evie,” said some sections felt “strange,” like Ms. Ebersole’s impersonation of Little Edie during the song “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” which is based on a famous scene in the documentary. “It’s very cartoony, it’s almost like a caricature of Little Edie,” she said. Ms. Weiss said she felt more comfortable later in the show, when Ms. Ebersole is “not imitating Little Edie’s voice, and she’s just singing these beautiful, sad songs.”
Winning the loyalty of the original “Grey Gardens” fans is a hurdle that the film director Michael Sucsy also faces. He is making a movie about the Beales, with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. Mr. Sucsy said that he had done extensive research, poring through Little Edie’s private letters, journals and poetry, and that his film, which will stretch from the mid-1930’s to 1979, will be faithful to her story.
“It’s not an exploitation,” he said. “We’re not doing ‘Grey Gardens: The Action Movie’. “
Albert Maysles, one of the directors of the original documentary, has no problem with either the musical or the film. “The more people who react to it with whatever they have to say about it, the better,” he said. He is even planning to turn audio clips from the movie into cellphone ring tones. He recently compiled unused sequences from “Grey Gardens” into a new film, “The Beales of Grey Gardens,” which is now in a handful of theaters nationwide and will be on DVD in December.
In the end, though, given the harsh realities of Broadway, the problem won’t be appeasing the fans but appealing to everyone else. Ms. Ebersole said that while she could detect when fans were in the audience, there were also plenty of performances when it was clear that not everyone got it: “There were nights when I would come out there and you could feel that the audience didn’t know what the hell was going on.”
The producer Margo Lion, who is not involved with “Grey Gardens,” said that her show “Hairspray” was successful because it appealed to “a broader market“ than the cult film it was based on. “You’re not doing something with a brand name that’s going to drive groups and individual ticket buyers in large numbers,” she said.
Based on his observations of the Broadway audiences’ reaction so far, Mr. Frankel said, “I would think the vast majority have not seen the documentary.” He suggested that the show has enough universal elements to appeal to a larger public and pointed out that it does not only appeal to gay males but also to older women, a big theatergoing demographic. “They’re responding to the notion that these women are able to express themselves, and they’re able to be more authentic versions of themselves and not having to please men,” he said. And what about the Beales? How would they have reacted to this? In “The Beales of Grey Gardens,” Little Edie says, “I don’t want anybody playing me.” But Walter Newkirk, a publicist in New Jersey and a fan who befriended Little Edie before she died in 2002, said she knew a musical was planned.
“She thought it would be a smash on Broadway,” Mr. Newkirk said. “Those were her words to me.”